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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Take a Deeper Look at Assessment for Understanding

Performance assessments go beyond traditional tests and serve as an important teaching tool.
By Roberta Furger
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VIDEO: Assessment Overview: Beyond Standardized Testing
Every spring, millions of school-age children throughout the United States sharpen their No. 2 pencils and prepare to take a battery of standardized tests. It's a ritual that has come to represent the nation's commitment to high academic standards and school accountability.

Parents use test scores to gauge their children's academic strengths and weaknesses, communities rely on these scores to judge the quality of their teachers and administrators, and state and federal lawmakers use these scores to hold public schools accountable for providing the high-quality education every child deserves.

For many, these standardized tests -- and the countless other smaller tests that are commonplace in today's classrooms -- are what come to mind when they hear the term assessment. We look to the end-of-week spelling test, the end-of-quarter biology exam, even the high school exit exam, to tell us whether our children are developing the skills and learning the material they'll need to succeed both in and out of school.

But tests aren't the only way to gauge a student's knowledge and abilities, just as reciting formulas and memorizing the periodic table is not the only way to learn chemistry. Throughout the country, many educators are going beyond traditional tests and using performance assessments in their K-12 classrooms to gauge what students know and can do.

They're designing projects that require students to apply what they're learning to real-world tasks, like designing a school building or improving the water quality in a nearby pond. And they're giving students the experience, as assessment expert Grant Wiggins says, "of being tested the way historians, mathematicians, museum curators, scientists, and journalists are actually tested in the workplace."

In a classroom setting, performance assessment is an essential companion to project learning. By developing comprehensive rubrics by which to evaluate student performances, teachers ensure that projects are more than just fun and engaging activities. They're true tests of a student's abilities and knowledge, linked to standards, and documented so that everyone -- students, parents, and educators -- understands what is being assessed.

The "performance" can include a wide range of activities and assignments: from research papers that demonstrate how well students can evaluate sources and articulate an opinion to experiments or problems that enable a teacher to gauge a student's ability to apply specific math or science knowledge and skills. Some performance assessments consist of individual projects; others require groups of students to work together toward a common goal.

But whatever the project or problem, well-crafted performance assessments share a common purpose: to give students the chance to show what they know and can do and to provide teachers with the tools to assess these abilities.

Assessment in Action

Assessment is a way of life for the 120 students at New York City's Urban Academy: Every day, in every class, students are encouraged and expected to demonstrate what they're learning. In Constitutional Law, they're required to argue a case before a mock Supreme Court. In geometry, they must apply mathematical concepts to measuring the height and volume of buildings or the distance between South Ferry and Staten Island using the Statue of Liberty as a reference point.

And before they receive their high school diploma, students must complete separate performance assessments (known at the Urban Academy as academic proficiencies) that demonstrate their skills and knowledge in six academic areas: mathematics, social studies, science, creative arts, criticism, and literature.

At New York City's Urban Academy, students show what they know through a series of performance assessments, such as this mock trial in Constitutional Law class.

Credit: Edutopia

"It's a system of assessment, not a single instrument," says Ann Cook, the Urban Academy's codirector. "It's a system based on a number of components, it goes on all year long, and it culminates in certain kinds of tasks that demonstrate what students can do."

These tasks might include writing a play and having it performed in front of the entire school, reading and studying a piece of literature and then being able to engage in a thoughtful conversation about it, or designing and conducting an original science experiment. With each proficiency, students must be prepared to share their work with classmates, teachers, and outside experts, who routinely lend their real-world expertise to the Urban Academy's assessment process.

The Urban Academy and more than 30 other alternative high schools that are part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium have adopted these rigorous performance assessments as an alternative to the Regents Exams, which high school students throughout New York State are required to pass in English, math, history, and science in order to earn a diploma.

Although their procedures may vary, all consortium schools have adopted a system of assessment aligned to state standards and based on a series of well-defined rubrics, so both the student and the teacher clearly understand the criteria on which work is evaluated. The Performance Assessment Review Board, an external group of educators, test experts, researchers, and members of the business and legal communities, monitors the performance-assessment system and evaluates samples of student work.

The consortium, says Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Education at Stanford University, represents an attempt "to develop high-quality performance assessments that can be evaluated in a reliable way." Darling-Hammond, who has worked with the consortium for more than a decade, points to member schools' high college acceptance rate compared with that of all New York City schools (91 percent versus 62 percent) as a testament to their rigorous curriculum and assessment.

Applied Learning

Across the country, at Mountlake Terrace High School, in Mountlake Terrace, Washington, geometry teacher Eeva Reeder began implementing performance-based assessments when she recognized a disturbing pattern among her students: They could pass a test with flying colors but had considerable difficulty transferring knowledge and skills from one unit to the next.

Students in Eeva Reeder's geometry class at Mountlake Terrace High School, near Seattle, spend six weeks applying their geometry skills to the challenge of designing a school for the year 2050.

Credit: Edutopia

Her response to this dilemma was to incorporate projects into her geometry class -- small-scale projects at the end of each unit of study, as well as a longer-term culminating project -- that require students to apply the abstract skills and formulas to real-world settings.

Completing a project, says Reeder, "is the true test of what you know. You can watch a show where Julia Child makes a soufflé, and you can read about soufflé making," she adds, but the real test is "making one yourself."

In Reeder's class, the true test of her students' geometry skills is an architectural challenge. In six weeks, students must design a high school that will meet the needs of students in 2050. Working in small teams, students are required to develop a site plan, create a scale model, prepare cost estimates, and write a formal proposal. They must also present their plan to their classmates and a group of architects who serve as mentors and judges throughout the project.

Assessment of the design projects occurs in several ways. At the beginning of the project, students are given the scoring rubric by which their work will be measured. Each part of the project is evaluated based on quality and accuracy, clarity and presentation, and concept. Reeder also evaluates teamwork (participation, level of involvement, quality of work as a team member) during the course of the project and at the end.

"There are two reasons for assessment," says Reeder. "One is to provide students feedback on the quality of their work and specifically on how they might improve that quality. The other is to assign a score or grade." Scoring is the easy part, she adds, and can be accomplished with the help of what she calls a "reasonably prepared" test.

"But you can't assess a student's deep understanding of a subject and their ability to apply a concept through a traditional paper-and-pencil, crank-out-the-formulas kind of assessment," says Reeder. "It has to be done with a performance assessment."

Assessing Student Growth

One common form of performance assessment is the development of a student portfolio -- a cumulative record of a student's work over time. It's a practice that's been used at the Key Learning Community, a K-12 school in Indianapolis, since the school first opened its doors in the fall of 1987.

Project learning and student presentation of work is an integral part of the Key Learning assessment program. Every semester, students select and research a project that corresponds to a schoolwide theme. These presentations are documented on videotape, and by the time a student completes eighth grade, he or she has a portfolio documenting as many as 25 projects.

In 1999, Key Learning opened its high school (beginning first with a single class of ninth graders), and with the older students came a move toward improved use of new technologies to capture student work. Now, students begin creating Apple iMovies in middle school and continue using the program throughout high school to document and present their work.

Student progress reports (there are no traditional report cards) are based on Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences and Ernest Boyer's theory of human commonalities.

Before earning their high school diploma, Key Learning seniors must document and demonstrate their applied knowledge in what Boyer identified as eight human commonalities. Among these are the shared use of symbols (through the creation of a major multimedia presentation), shared production and consumption (through a project on marketing and economics), and the shared sense of time and space (through a project on the history of Indianapolis or the contributions of an ethnic group to the development of the city).

As the school's eleventh graders gear up for the college application process, Key Learning is investigating ways to create smaller but representative portfolios of student work on CD-ROMs, which will be made available to college admissions departments.

Time Well Spent

Despite their many differences, these three schools share a common commitment to developing a project-rich curriculum supported and influenced by a thoughtful system of assessment. Teachers, students, and parents all understand that the most effective assessment doesn't happen at the end of a unit. It's woven throughout lessons and projects, often so seamlessly as to be indistinguishable from everyday teaching and learning.

Research papers at the Urban Academy go through multiple revisions before students and teachers alike consider them complete.

Credit: Edutopia

Without question, these high-quality performance assessments take time. The typical research paper at the Urban Academy, for example, will go through multiple revisions before the student and his or her teacher consider it complete. With each revision comes a discussion about key issues to be addressed, questions yet to be answered, and concepts that require further development.

A single proficiency might take a semester or even an entire year for a student to complete and might involve hours and hours of discussions with Urban Academy teachers and an outside evaluator. At Mountlake Terrace, Eeva Reeder spends many hours on just the logistics of her six-week-long architecture project, such as organizing field trips to local architects' office and coordinating classroom activities with the mentors' busy work schedules.

"Performance assessments do engage people in work and time. Students have to develop the performances. The teachers have to evaluate them," acknowledges Stanford's Linda Darling-Hammond. But, she emphasizes, "the time is not lost to teaching and learning. The time is teaching and learning, because the actual conduct of the assessment is a learning experience for students as well as teachers. It informs teaching. It gives teachers immediate feedback about what they need to do to meet a student's needs."

And with that immediate feedback comes the ability to intervene, to change course when assessments show that a particular lesson or strategy isn't working for a student, or to offer new challenges for students who've mastered a concept or skill. In this context, says performance-assessment researcher Karen Sheingold, assessment and learning become "two sides of the same coin" rather than separate and distinct activities.

Assessment Versus Accountability

In many U.S. classrooms and schools, assessment practices aren't just about improving teaching and learning for individual students. They're inextricably bound to the public's demand for greater accountability. All 50 states administer annual assessments to their students, the results of which can determine whether a student is promoted or retained and whether teachers get bonuses or a school gets reconstituted.

Although multiple choice and short-answer tests are still the norm, states are gradually incorporating performance-based assessments into their standardized tests.

Credit: Edutopia

These tests, because of their high stakes, have an incredible influence on classroom practices. For example, nearly 70 percent of the teachers responding to a 2000 Education Week survey on standards and accountability said that state assessments were "forcing them to concentrate too much on what's tested, to the detriment of other important areas of learning." The teachers reported dropping longer units with rich assessment components in favor of more traditional lessons that reflected the type of material and format common in most state assessments.

Few would argue with the need, as Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, says, to "know whether or not children are learning, and whether they're performing on grade level or better or way below." But when the stakes are too high, this laudable goal gets distorted. Teachers begin teaching to the test to raise scores, often at the expense of more meaningful learning activities. And when the tests are too narrow a measure or aren't properly aligned to standards, they provide little concrete information teachers and schools can use to improve teaching and learning for individual students.

Although most states continue to use multiple-choice and short-answer items on their standardized tests, a handful of states have incorporated additional measures into their annual assessments. The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program for example, is frequently commended for the thoughtful way in which it calls on students to demonstrate multiple abilities in answering a single question or problem. (See Bruce Alberts's Edutopia.org article "Appropriate Assessments for Reinvigorating Science Education.")

In addition, Kentucky and Vermont have incorporated portfolios into their statewide assessments of student achievement -- another effort to offer a broader picture of student achievement, and the now-defunct Massachusetts Reform Review Commission convened representatives from various stakeholder groups to devise a strategy for expanding the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System to make it fairer and more comprehensive.

These additions are important and necessary, says Chris Dede, a professor of education at Harvard University, in order to really understand what students know and can do. "The current reform movement is based on first-generation standards and first-generation assessments for accountability," says Dede. "And while standards and accountability are good," he adds, "the first generation is flawed. Instead of multiple indicators of what students know, we end up with a single test score that somehow is supposed to capture everything that's inside of a student's head."

Dede likens state assessments to an annual visit to the doctor and suggests that we need more, not less, information to gauge a student's knowledge and abilities.

"When I go to a doctor for a physical, it's an indicator of overall wellness," he says. "I don't just want to know about my blood pressure. I want to know about my cholesterol level and a variety of other indicators. Somebody's educational well-being is more complicated than their physical health."In our second generation's standards, we need deeper focus on fewer skills that are central to the 21st century," he adds. "And in our second-generation assessments, we need broader measures, multiple measures that look at the different kinds of things that students have learned and have mastered."

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

Comments (123)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kevin Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A very impressive article on Authentic (Performance) Assessment. Educators, parents, and students alike have all become too familiar with the ritual of standardized testing. I too am an Early Childhood Education teacher candidate from Antioch University McGregor and am currently taking an Assessment course along with Megan and Laura. "Performance," "real-world," "teamwork," "projects," "rubric," and "portfolio" are but a few terms which stood out in my mind and appeared several times throughout the article. I am convinced that alternative assessment methods beyond traditional ones are a starting point in preparing students for real world tasks and projects.

Between 6th and 12th grade my memory is engraved with having been administered some form of achievement or standardized tests, including practice tests for those tests! In high school the closest performance based assessments were those offered in block class programs such as Environmental Management or Radio and Advertising. Although these classes had traditional paper and pencil tests, students were also assessed by performance and through projects. Feedback allowed students to improve and repeat tasks to where they would be assessed on performance throughout the course.

The article also noted that, "well crafted performance assessments share a common purpose: to give students the chance to show what they know and can do and to provide teachers with the tools to assess these abilities. Eeva Reeder's class presented a great project idea in teaching and assessing geometry. Another idea, at a primary level, might be to have your first grade class design and build a butterfly garden using geometrical shapes in relationship to a geometry unit. Any idea can be modified to a specific grade level. Think back to any science experiments you have done throughout school. There is a great chance that they were applicable to the real world. There is a learning process that each student goes through from start to finish.

Comment concerning video:

I thought it was interesting how the video noted, "Critics of performance based assessment worry that if students are free to pursue projects of their choice, standards will suffer. But some assessment experts say that independent study projects should meet the highest standards" (Narrator). We need to realize that if we give a child the choice in designing or choosing a project, it will most likely fit within a context of some objectives, standards, and criteria that will lead to evidence of their learning experience. Traditional assessment (standardized, multiple choice, knowledge cramming) has its pros and cons while authentic project based assessment offers another alternative.

I like the idea of an external assessor for literacy. If time and resources are possible then I believe this assessment would have positive results in and out of the classroom. By interpreting the text and answering questions from the assessor, the child can really show and explain what they have learned in depth..

Deborah Scales's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wish these types of assessments were in place when I was in school. It certainly would have allowed me to demonstrate what I learned much more clearly and would have made the tasks of taking traditional tests less frustrustating and stressful. The article was a confirmation of what I have believed teaching should be about. I have said it about myself and I've heard other adults say it about themselves and about their students, "I'm a horrible test taker". If we know this to be true, why do we keep forcing tests as the final assessment of ALL children? It is clear, now more than ever, that a more concrete conclusion of what a student has learned if they can demonstrate their knowledge. In this age of technology, specifically video games, they are fast paced and engaging. Students must practice the game enough to become proficient in it and advance to the next stage. That is how they learn the game...by constant practice and hands on experience. The classroom should and most children are completely engaged and study the game well enough to advance to the next level. To advance, the child has to "practice" and demonstrate their skill level before they move on. Classroom work should be the same way, practicing and demonstrating what they've learned to advance to the next level. Also, like video games and other technology used by students, it's engaging. Classroom assignments must be engaging so that students can take ownership of their work and be creative as to how they present it. Tn the article says, "well-crafted performance assessments share a common purpose: to give students the chance to show what they know and can do and to provide teachers with the tools to assess these abilities."

I am inspired by the varios methods of assessments that were highlighted in the article. The schools mentioned show cutting edge practice of allowing students to demonstrate what they've learned. I agree that this should be a "system based on a number of components" including performance assessments. Whether the assessments are based on individual performance or group activities, I believe that for many students, this may be give the one true picture of a students ability.

Charlotte Berwanger 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am curently a kindergarten teacher taking the same assessment class that Laura, Kevin, Megan and Debroah are taking. As I read this article and read about the projects the different schools were doing it reminded me of going to Kings Island in high school for our physics class. That might not have been as developed and envolved project but it allowed us to share our knowledge of the material in a different way then a paper pencil test.

I see that projects are important forms of assessment because they allow for a different type of expression of the knowledge compared to the traditional multiple choice tests. The performance based projects allow for a higher level of thinking to be expressed and evaluated. They are able to have high standards.

The standarized tests can be very stressfull for the students and teachers. The students may not express the full knowledge because of the stress. I remember when I was taking standarized tests in school I would often read and reread the questions so many times that then I would not have the time to finish the whole test. The teachers are concerned about the test scores and accountability that they do away with the indepth projects so that they can concentrate on the mastering the concepts of the test. These indepth projects could have actually tought the same concepts in a higher level of thinking and understanding. Teachers are changing their style of teaching to teach more to the test.

Kelly Heil's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this article very interesting and helpful. I agree that it is impossible to see what all a child knows by one standardized test. I know several students, including myself that are not "test takers" and therefore do not tend to do well on tests. By using a Performance or Project assessment students like myself are given an opportunity to do well. I believe that all schools should be implementing more alternative assessments such as; Performance assessments, Project assessments, and Portfolios. These assessments provide teachers with helpful feedback and parents are able to view their child's work. I completely agree with the way Urban Academy assess their students. I like the idea of using a system of assessments, rather than a single instrument. I also thought the quote from Eeva Reeder was so true; she said "A project is a true test of what you know. You can watch a show where Julia Child makes a souffle, and you can read about souffle making, but the real test is making one yourself." However, I have a feeling standardize teasting is going to be around awhile and therefore once I become a teacher I will have to "teach to the test." I think as a teacher you can be creative when "teaching to the test" and if you manage your time you should be able to include some Performance and Project based assessments. Then not only do you have the scores from the test you also have projects that may provide more or a better insight on what the child knows.

Elizabeth Kimley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed this artical. I liked how it mentions that standardized testes are not the only way to assess a students knowledge and ablitities. It also talks about how Preformance Assessment is another way to assess children that is fun and engageing. Unlike standardized testing that causes children to stress out which will not give accurate results.

I feel that this type of assessment is benifical because it is another way to assess students that is non threating for them.I feel that you can assess students that is fun and engageing and still teach to the test. Which this artical gave great ideas on how to do just that.

Finally, I found it interesting that Preformance assessments require students to apply what they are learning to real world tasks. I think this is very important because it's a big world and to teach students real life tasks will only prepare them for later on down the road.

Deborah Freeman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found the article to be very interesting and I think that these school had some great ideas. I like the thought of the students getting to do handson/groups projcets. These articles give me ideas that I can take into my student teaching class, to challenge the minds of the students. This kind of activity would help the students that are special needs, it would or could not matter about the percentle or the level of a student's ability. The only thing that would matter would be how the student would apply themselves to the project. This type of assessment would also build a child's self-esteem and make him/her feel more confident about accomplishing their goals in life. Using these assessments the students could not fail.
I feel that all schools should get rid of standardize testing this type of test takes the self-esteem for a child. I think this is one of the reason that we have so many high school dropouts because these students are labeled from these standardize test. I do hope in the future that a change will take the place and all students will be an equal.

Paula Robinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed the article and agree with many of the opinions and viewpoints. In 1988 when I graduated from High School it wasn't a requirement for us to take the OGT to graduate. But if I had to take the test before I graduated back then, I probably would not have passed it, which would have meant that I wouldn't have received my diploma. I have always struggled when it came to standardized test. Like many students of today, my hands would started to sweat and the anxiety would have taken over. I really like the idea of the schools at the NY Urban Academy where students are being judged by the various assessments (tasks) to demostrate they retained the information that they learned during their course of studies. It is terrible that so many teachers now have to "teach to the test". What happen to the days of good old fashion teaching?

Because Antioch McGregor uses Project Assessment or Performance Assessments is the main reason why I chose this University. This is a tool that more schools need to use when they are assessing students in their classrooms. These assessments would allow the student to know what their strengths and weaknesses are.

Adrienne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article captivated & enlightening to me. I believed that there was only one way to assess students learning and that was through standardized testing. That was the way I was assesed as a child & it is also how my the public school district I work for tests as well. The performance assessments are innovative & makes sense. When in school I remember memorizing information to ace a test, then forgetting it because never in life would I utilize the information again. With project assessing the student is learning new information, applying the knowledge learned & then expounding upon it. What a creative, ingenious & fun way of learning. It also eliminates the phrase " teaching to the test" and allows educators to incorporate rich assessment components instead of more traditional lessons that reflected the type of material and format common in most state assessments. I am totally inspired & would definitely consider moving to a state or school district that practices inventive & successful ways of educating students.

Elizabeth Duhl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading this article about Performance Based Assessment. I didn't realize the different kinds of schools that apply this method instead of standardized tests and I thought it was interesting how they used it. I also like how the teacher in Washington incorporates performance based assessment with her class that also has to take the state's standardized test.

I liked the real life programs and projects that were given as examples that students have had to do for their schools. I think that these types of projects are great for all students and allow them to demonstrate what they have learned in their on way. Also since many of these projects last a full year, it allows the students to build, alter and expand on what they have been working on, to be able to fully understand the lessons.

After reading this article, I have a better understanding of performance based assessments and think they are valuable to all students. Since my future school will more then likely have standardized tests that I will have to teach, I hope to be like the teacher in Washington and incorporate hands on projects for my students to give them wide varity of experiences.

KeShawna Jones's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thought this was a great article. It was evidence of how some schools integrated perfomance based assessments ie. authentic assessment into their curriculum or do a way with the existing assessment to adopt a totally new one. A point made in the article that has resonate in me was "And with that immediate feedback comes the ability to intervene, to change course when assessments show that a particular lesson or strategy isn't working for a student, or to offer new challenges for students who've mastered a concept or skill. In this context, says performance-assessment researcher Karen Sheingold, assessment and learning become "two sides of the same coin" rather than separate and distinct activities." Performance based assessment does provide immediate feedback for the teacher and is a valuable tool in identifying the needs of the student. As educators we want to be able to intervene as soon as possible instead of waiting until the annual test scores come back identifying where you've lost your student(s). You want to intervene before it's too late. The article goes on to discuss application. I believe application of lessons learned is an indication of how well the student learned in that teacher's class. It's one thing to know the information it's another when it is applied. I believe you learn a lot more and get a better understanding through application. For example I am a graduate student matriculating my M.Ed and teacher certificate. I have learned a great deal thus far in the discipline of education but I won't really get a grasp until I go into the field as a student teacher. Everything I will and have learned will be put to the "test" when I become a student teacher. I will be assessed by my cooperating teacher and my field placement advisor. Hopefully they will provide immediate feedback...intervention.... that will assist me on continuing on the track I'm on and/or to change course.
In life and in the classroom...you're taught, you apply and only after you've experienced and apply is when you have... trully LEARNED.

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